Category Archives: mba admissions

The Art of Not Looking To Desperate When Applying to Business School

When perusing the data and seeing the average starting salaries at the top-ranked MBA programs and law schools, it’s easy to get the impression that getting into a top graduate school can turn you from an 80-pound weakling into a money-making, world-beating dynamo. But don’t be fooled. Yes, these schools can significantly improve your earnings power, but to get in you have to demonstrate that you’re already a star.

We know what you’re thinking… If you’re already a star, then why would you need an MBA?

Think about what nearly every business school asks in its application: Some form of the “Why do you want an MBA from this school?” question. If you can’t answer this… Well, that’s the first filter to keep out the applicants who aren’t serious. But, beyond that first-cut filter, they hope to see something along the lines of, “I am already progressing quickly in my career, and know that a degree from your school will help me go even further.”

And, they don’t only want to hear you say that, but they also want to hear it from your recommenders, and see it on your resume, and smell it on you… Yes! Smell it on you! People can smell winners and losers, and admissions officers at top business schools and law schools are especially trained in this skill. They’re not interested in finding the 28-year-old who’s stalled in his career and needs a glorious name on his resume to get things going again.

Compare that to this answer to the “Why an MBA?” question: “My boss doesn’t get me. I haven’t yet had a chance to lead anyone. I’m just waiting for someone to discover how great I am. When they do… Then my career will really start to take off.

Here, the applicant is saying, “I know I don’t smell like a winner, but I promise there’s a winner in here somewhere!” Why would admissions officers take a chance on that when they don’t need to? They don’t need to because they’re already inundated with applications from real stars, people who are already doing really well in their careers. Wouldn’t they rather admit one of those stars, and know that they’ll go on to great things?

So, you absolutely must make sure that you show in your application that you’re already on the way up, and that the school can help add that extra 10% that will make you really successful. How? You need to point to evidence of what you’ve accomplished, how you’ve gone outside of your comfort zone and beyond your job description, and how you made a positive mark on the organization and community around you. That’s what a winner smells like, and that’s who an admissions officer wants to admit.

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Four Things That Tend to Make Many International MBA Applicants Sound Alike

We get no shortage of inquires from international business applicants. (By “international” we mean people based in other countries who apply to U.S. business schools.) In fact, we sell more copies of Your MBA Game Plan internationally than we do in the United States! While we love helping international applicants, we find that there are many themes we hear over and over when talking to them. While many international applicants hold some great assets that make them attractive to U.S. business schools, they sometimes fall into some very common traps that ultimately make it hard for them to stand out vs. the competition.

Here are four things that we tend to see a lot of in international applicants. None of these things is terrible or will certainly keep you out of a top-ranked MBA program, but if you read this list and it sounds a lot like you, then consider this a wake-up call that you may need to work a little harder to get into a top U.S. business school:

Strong GMAT scores and academics, but not much else
For the past decade, we have talked with countless applicants who have, at first, merely introduced themselves with the name of their university, their class rank, and their GMAT score. When it comes to extracurricular activities, hobbies, or anything else that can help admissions officers see them as real, interesting people, they often have very little to talk about. When trying to stand out versus thousands of applicants with 700+ GMAT scores and fancy degrees, you can’t fight fire with fire. In other words, what will help you stand out is not an even higher GMAT score, but something else that helps tell the story of who you are, even if (especially if) it has nothing to do with your job or your academics. And keep in mind that admissions officers are not fooled by a half-hearted attempt to do just enough community service to be able to write about it in your business school application. You need to show passion for something and how you have made an impact. That will help set you apart.

Very similar-sounding career goals
The growth of the markets in India and China has caused many applicants to come to the same conclusion about their career goals: “My goal is to earn my degree and then to return home to launch my own business (or run my family business).” To be clear, there is nothing wrong with this career goal. It’s realistic and specific, which are both very im- portant. But be aware that hundreds of other people from your country who are applying to the same school may have the same goal in mind, which will make it even harder for you to stand out. If this is truly your goal, then don’t change it for the sake of being different—but realize that something else in your application will need to help set you apart from other applicants.

Unrealistic career goals
For some international applicants, this is a function of not having enough information about graduate business school and the opportunities it can provide. For others, though, the problem is that they don’t want to have common-sounding career goals, so they write things such as “My goal is to start a multinational telecommunications firm and conduct an initial public offering worth $1 billion within five years.” An impressive goal, to be sure, but one that will make admissions officers wonder about how realistic or well-researched your career goals are, which, in turn, may make them wonder if you are a good fit for business school.

A background in technology

Again, there is nothing wrong with this. But be realistic about the fact that so many other applicants will have the same type of professional background. Why should admissions officers want you over 20 other similar-sounding engineers? (And don’t answer that your GMAT score is higher!) One way to overcome this weakness is if you can demonstrate leadership abilities on the job. Maybe you haven’t managed your own employees, but have you led a project or gone out of your way to make a positive impact on your organization? If so, be sure to emphasize that in your application. The key point: Admissions officers are much more interested in your leadership potential than in your technical proficiency. Remember that extracurricular experiences, community service, and hobbies can help you here, too.

Today’s advice was taken from our book, Your MBA Game Plan, now in its 3rd edition! And, be sure to find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter!

Stop Worrying About What Other People Do!

With some popular outlets recently reporting that your odds of getting into a top-ranked MBA program have improved since last year, we want to revisit an idea that we have written about before. The main thrust is this: Whether application numbers are up or down barely affects your chances of admission.

Yes, most top-ranked business schools reported that their application numbers were down in the 2010-2011 admissions season when compared to the previous year. This certainly isn’t bad news if you hope to get into one of these MBA programs this year (assuming that the trend continues; this is a reasonable assumption, but not a trivial one), but the problem with all of this is that statistics can be useful in the aggregate, but using them to judge an individual case can lead to some off-base conclusions. In a nutshell. you should stop worrying about how many applicants are trying to get into each of your your target schools, and start worrying about how many GREAT applicants are applying.

See where we’re coming from? Let’s say you apply to Snooty Business School (SBS), which takes 500 new students each year. Last year SBS received 6,000 applications and admitted 600 of them, for an acceptance rate of 10%. (100 of the lucky admits decided to instead matriculate at the Lavish Graduate School of Business instead.) This year, the school will receive 7,500 applications and will still admit 600 of them (they expect yield will be the same), for an acceptance rate of 8%.

Oh no! SBS’s acceptance rate just went down by two percentage points (from 10% to 8%), and you therefore must be 20% less likely to get in! Well, what if we told you that those additional 1,500 applicants all had unremarkable work experience, GPAs under 3.0, and GMAT scores lower than 600? You’re a lot less worried about those additional competitors now, aren’t you? You Now what if we told you that they all were rock stars in their jobs, they all earned 3.8+ GPAs at Ivy League schools, and not one of them has a GMAT score below 740? You’re pretty darn worried now, right?

Of course, you don’t know who those additional people are, just as, when application numbers decline, you don’t know who’s not applying but did apply a year ago. In this hypothetical case, your true competition comes from the portion of applicants who realistically have a fighting chance of getting into (and doing well at) Snooty Business School. In the case of SBS, we’ll estimate that it’s about a quarter to a third of the applicants (this is very consistent with what we hear from admissions officers)… Their job is hard not because they need to choose among the 7,500 people who apply to SBS, but rather because they must decide which of the approximately 2,000 great applicants they will admit.

If those 1,500 “new” applicants are all jokers, then the admissions committee’s job isn’t really that much harder. And if you’re strong enough to be one of the approximately 2,000 great applicants that the admissions committee is really considering, then you should be too spooked by those additional 1,500 applicants. Again, the total number of applicants, by itself, is almost meaningless if you don’t know anything about who those people are. Hearing that SBS’s acceptance rate dropped from 10% to 8% should not have any effect on you as a rational decision maker.

The argument works the same way when the number of applicants drops: If SBS gets 500 fewer applicants this year, you’re happy to hear that. But if all 500 of those people wouldn’t have gotten in anyway — perhaps they were the classic “bad economy fence sitters” who applied on a lark, with miserable GMAT scores and laughable recommendations — then this isn’t exactly super news for you. It ain’t bad news, but it’s not much more exiting than hearing that your second-favorite hockey team just moved from fifth to fourth in the standings.

We’ll leave you with the final piece of advice, which is always true in any kind of weather: You can always help your chances the best by focusing on what you can do to make YOUR application terrific. Let let the rest just happen, because that’s all you can do.

Want more MBA admissions advice? Take a look at our book, Your MBA Game Plan, now in its 3rd edition. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter!

What Business School Rejection Letters Are Really Telling You

Getting rejected is hard. Getting rejected by a top-ranked MBA program is really hard. What makes it even more painful is that few business schools give rejected applicants specific feedback on why they didn’t get in. Applicants just want to know what they “did wrong” to not get in, but, even when schools do provide feedback, the applicants normally end up confused and still guessing about what to do next.

Why won’t they spill the beans? Are admissions officers trying to obfuscate the process, keeping you in the dark so that you can’t “game” the system? Are they just cold hearted, not caring about you, especially once they’ve decided they don’t want you? No and no. The truth is that, when someone gets rejected, it’s often because the school just couldn’t find any great reason to admit them over thousands of other applicants.

Rejection letters often contain lots of references to “an unusually strong year” and the fact that “the admissions office reviewed more great applications than it has spots to offer.” While this may sound like a lot of hot air that they blow to make you feel better, therein lies the real reason why many applicants get rejected. Think about it: Next year’s incoming class at Stanford GSB will be a bit smaller than 400 students. Out of the 7,000+ applications the school receives, do you really think that only a few hundred are strong enough to be admitted? Of course not. The number is probably in the thousands. Separating out the approximately 2,000 great applicants (that’s a rough guess) from the rest is the easy part; it’s deciding which of those 2,000 to admit is where things get hard for the admissions office.

Invariably, they’ll see hundreds of applicants whom they really love, but who just aren’t presenting that one knockout thing that makes admissions officers choose them over the next (very similar) applicant. Two applicants with amazing international banking experience, identical GMAT scores, perfect letters of recommendation, and essays that could make the reader cry… There’s no law that says the school can only take one, but they have to start making hard choices at some point, and soon enough the admissions director will start leaning on his or her team to start reducing the number of bankers in the class, or to only take another consultant if he walks on water, etc.

So, MBA admissions officers start to make tough choices. They’re forced to pass up on some applicants simply because they only have so many spots left, and they can’t justify devoting a spot to those applicants because they just not quite great enough to justify it. Every year thousands of MBA applicants get the “It’s not you, it’s us” letter, and for at least a few hundred of them for a given school, the admissions committee really, really means it.

The way to avoid falling into this bucket (or, more accurately, to minimize your risk of falling into it) is to present something truly outstanding about yourself, something that really stands out and will stick in admissions officers’ minds when they start negotiating and whittling down the class. Make sure your essays help them feel like they’ve gotten to know you as a person. Submit recommendations in which the writers scream from the rooftops, “This kid is a rock star!!” Nail your interviews so that they have no questions about your maturity and your ability to worth with others. Display a knowledge of (and a passion for) the program that leaves no question in the admissions committee’s mind that you will matriculate if accepted. And, perhaps most importantly, don’t force them to overlook any weaknesses in your profile. Make their decision an easy one.

The above steps are obviously more easily said than done, but they really are the best way to avoid falling into the “We really like you, but just can’t quite find room for you” bucket. Do it right, and when the admissions office talks about the “unprecedented number of highly qualified applicants,” you’ll be one of them.

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Want to Write a Great Admissions Essay? Look to the Wedding Toast.

Struggling to complete your admissions essays? Think back for a minute and consider the last few weddings you’ve been to. If you’re lucky, you only have witnessed great wedding speeches and toasts, but odds are that you’ve sat through at least one or two bombs. What accounts for the difference?

While your first answer might understandably be, “It’s how comfortable the person is about delivering speeches in front of large groups,” I don’t really think that’s the case. Yes, no one wants to watch the poor guy stand up there and sweat bullets as he fumbles with a piece of paper covered in smeared ink, mumbling into the microphone for what seems like an eternity. Delivery matters, no doubt.

However, content outshines delivery almost every time. Here’s one common culprit that’s made more than a few wedding toasts bad: The speaker just focused on cracking jokes, and left you scratching your head as to who he is, what he has to do with all of this, and why he chose to tell that embarrassing story about the groom. Although he probably thought it was funny, you were checking your watch (or your iPhone; this is 2011, after all), wondering when was going to finish. He didn’t connect with you, and you ended up caring about him or his relationship with the lucky couple no more than when he started.

Now think about the ones that you have enjoyed. Even the most nervous toastmasters deliver good speeches when they’re willing to get a little personal. The good speakers reveal a little bit about themselves, and in doing so they help you get to know them a bit better. They share a vulnerability or concern that we’ve all felt at some point, and everyone shares a small appreciative chuckle. They present a side of the bride and groom that you’ve never seen before (and actually want to see). They make you care a little more. They connect with you.

A great speaker — just like a great admissions essay writer — doesn’t need to leave them rolling in the aisles. Humor helps, but only to the extent that it helps to present and accentuate personal stories that make you feel like you now know the person on more than a superficial level. A great admissions essay works in the same way. It doesn’t focus on devices and gimmicks; it just delivers a message that the reader will leave the reader saying, “I really enjoyed that. He seems like someone I’d like to get to know more.” Whether you’re talking about what matters most to you (… and why), or discussing a time when you failed as part of a team, or discussing where you see yourself in your career ten years from now, this same yardstick applies. Taking a chance and putting a little bit of your self “out there” is the difference between a bore of an essay and a terrific one.

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MIT Sloan Admissions Office Ditches Paper in Favor of iPads

Recently the Wall Street Journal reported that the MIT Sloan admissions office has purchased 15 iPads, which its admissions officers will use to review applications in a 100% paper-free environment. Sloan admissions officers estimate that the move will save the school $10,000 per year in paper costs.

The funny thing is that, although most schools moved to online application systems years ago, usually the first thing that admissions officers do with a newly received electronic application is print it out. From there, the paper application goes through a process that has barely changed in decades: It moves from one pile to the next, from one admissions officers’ hands to the next, until it has been reviewed at least a couple of times. While the online application systems make for better tracking, today schools rarely take advantage of this. Now, however, if Sloan can keep every application entirely online, it can make for much more efficient reviewing and tracking of each application.

While much will probably be made of the fact that Sloan will use iPads for this new way of reviewing the 5,000 or so applications it receives each year, we find this move to be interesting whether they’re using iPads, laptops, or anything else electronic. Why? Because, as schools move towards working more multimedia responses into their applications, it only makes sense to keep the entire application in electronic form. Right now, a school that accepts a video “essay” response must match up each video with the rest of an applicant’s file, which is probably a stack of paper that’s sitting in a pile somewhere — who knows where! — in the admissions office.

Why not review everything in one place? Imagine clicking here to review an applicant’s data sheet, clicking there to read Essay #1, and then scrolling down to pull up a short video from that applicant. Pretty cool!

This move to an all-electronic system makes it easier to seamlessly work such multimedia responses in with the rest of the applications. We wouldn’t be surprised if this move precedes a move by Sloan to work multimedia into its applications over the next year or so.

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Should You Wait Until Round 3?

If you’re scrambling to get your Round 2 business school applications complete, take a breath and ask yourself, “Am I maximizing my chances of success by applying in Round 2?” As usual, the answer is, “It depends.”

No two business school applicants are in the same situation, so the answer we give is never quite the same. One applicant might have lost his job recently. He hadn’t been planning on applying to business school this year, but his sudden unemployment now makes MBA programs look that much more appealing. Another might be in a quandary because she just took the GMAT again and still can’t get above a 650. She had been planning on nailing the GMAT this month and spending a couple of weeks on her essays and letters of recommendation, but now she wonders if she’d be better served by taking the GMAT yet again and applying in Round 3 in March or April. Still another applicant just rolled out of bed last week and decided that he absolutely must have a Harvard MBA. That happens a lot!

Let’s be clear: Round 3 is NOT an automatic black hole where applications go to die. As we wrote earlier this year, top business schools know that great applicants can come in any round, and many schools have very specific reasons (such as U.S. schools needing to stay competitive vs. international programs) for paying close attention to the Round 3 applicant pool.

Still, since in Round 3 your chances of success are very much impacted somewhat by what happened in the previous rounds — Did your first-choice school admit more students than it originally had planned? Are yields higher than historical averages? — you can’t help but wonder if you’re going to get fair shake in Round 3. Ultimately, however, how well you do in Round 3 depends far more on you and your application than on what numbers the admissions office saw in previous rounds.

Round 3 partly has a tarnished reputation because of applicants who throw together their applications at the last minute (rather than having to wait eight months before applying in next year’s admissions cycle) and end up getting rejected. “See,” they say, “I knew I wouldn’t get in. Round 3 is impossible.” But most of them would have been rejected in the previous rounds, too. They threw together half-baked applications, and got predictable results. We could have saved them a lot of time and money.

If you apply to a top-ranked business school with a flaw that really concerns you — e.g., a low GMAT score, or a weak undergrad transcript with nothing to compensate for it, or sloppy essays, or I-hope-he-spelled-my-name-right letters of recommendation — then you can safely assume that flaw will also concern MBA admissions officers enough to keep you out. In that case, we almost always strongly recommend that an applicant wait, takes steps to improve things, and then apply in Round 3 (or next year) when things are in order.

Many applicants act as if they view their applications as lottery tickets: “I’ll take a shot at Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, Kellogg, Booth, Stern, Sloan, Anderson, Yale, and Tuck… One of those is bound to hit for me.” Or, they say, “My odds of getting into a top school are low? I’ll just apply to more top schools then. That will boost my odds.” But applying to more schools with a bad application will only generate more rejections. Coming back to a school as a reapplicant isn’t a terrible thing, but if you’re creating an application now that virtually assures you of having to apply again next year, then don’t bother submitting it.

Do it right the first time. Even if that means applying in Round 3. A great Round 3 application beats a good Round 2 application every time.

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